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Guardiola's defensive switch moves Man City closer to title glory

LONDON -- It was in the 64th minute of Manchester City's 3-1 victory over Tottenham that Pep Guardiola showed how much he had been stung by his side's three-game losing streak.

Three times in six days, City found themselves on the wrong end of defeats against Liverpool (twice) and Manchester United, with two of those losses coming in games City had led at half-time.

At Wembley, they once again raced ahead, going 2-0 up before Christian Eriksen's strike shortly before half-time reduced the deficit; the recurring flaw of being unable to hold on to an advantage threatened to resurface against Mauricio Pochettino's team.

But after weathering a Spurs storm at the beginning of the second half, Guardiola went against the grain and made a defensive substitution by replacing winger Leroy Sane with centre-half Nicolas Otamendi.

It was a move more likely to have been made by Jose Mourinho, not Guardiola, but after those painful defeats against Liverpool and United -- and the manner by which they occurred -- the City manager chose to deploy the hand brake, and it was the right move at the right time.

Within eight minutes of tightening up at the back, City broke forward and scored a third through Raheem Sterling, who had to move more central. Guardiola's switch paid dividends, in that it secured victory and left his team within one win of the Premier League title.

A week ago, after losing 3-2 in the derby, having relinquished a two-goal lead, there was doom-and-gloom around the Etihad Stadium, and that misery was compounded three days later by City's Champions League quarterfinal exit against Liverpool.

But despite the prospect of Spurs -- unbeaten in the league since December -- inflicting a fourth straight defeat, City bounced back with a performance of champions to deliver an emphatic reminder of their class and why they are, once again, 16 points clear at the top of the table.

The last week has been a learning process for Guardiola and his players, though, and his second-half substitution of Sane for Otamendi was a pointer to that. City have been unable to hold on to a lead in two of their biggest games of the season, so changes had to be made to halt that run.

Recent results have gone against Manchester City, but Saturday's win puts them on the brink of Premier League glory.

There are other issues that will take longer to correct. Fatigue has unquestionably caught up with his players, whose blistering early-season form was sapping on energy, both physically and mentally. Guardiola may rotate his squad more often next season and not rely so heavily on the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, who has missed just five games all campaign.

However, nobody can suggest that the approach has not worked this season; City have romped to the brink of the title by blowing teams away in the first half of the campaign, and so, if they are paying a price now, the title is a decent reward for that.

De Bruyne, a player-of-the-year candidate and arguably the driving force behind the title charge, admitted after this game that better defending and resilience were important following a difficult run.

"It's been a tough two weeks for us with five games," De Bruyne said. "[Tottenham] didn't have a game for a week and that's the advantage they had, but the mental toughness of this team is unbelievable. Today we scored the goals and defended better and we deserved to win it."

The win means that the title could be sealed Sunday if United lose at home to West Bromwich Albion. Failing that, Mourinho's side would have to avoid defeat at Bournemouth on Wednesday to make City need to win at home to Swansea next Sunday to confirm the title.

"We're almost there, we knew we had to win two of six games," De Bruyne said. "That's not bad odds for us. We need to do our thing, and hopefully we can finish it off next week."

For weeks it has been a case of when, rather than if, City win the title, and it is almost certain to happen within the next week. The question in their remaining five games is whether they can break the 100-goal barrier -- they currently have 93 -- and claim 13 points to become the first club in Premier League history to reach 100 in a season.

So, there are still targets to achieve, but the first one, the priority, is to wrap up the title.

"These guys are fantastic and awesome," Guardiola said. "What's happened in the last week is so unfair, but we have a second chance against Swansea, and we're going to try and be champions. Today, we've done it many, many times, and that's why we're in the position we are. I am so glad to be here and be part of the club. It was so good. The performance was so good."

Guardiola admitted he will not watch United's game Sunday, though he does not expect them to slip up against the league's bottom-placed club.

"I have a golf game tomorrow," he said. "I have three days off, and tomorrow I have golf. Golf, my son, friends, tomorrow is golf. I will be so happy and I will celebrate, but I think United will win. The important thing is that we know we depend on ourselves. We have to win it at home. I am excited to be champions with our fans."

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_


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